To Muriel, from Ham
Created by Ham Fisher, Joe Palooka is one of the great all-time popular comic strips. While critics thought the strip schmaltzy and naive, the great reading public couldn't get enough of Joe, his long-time affair with Ann Howe, his relationship with his boxing manager Knobby Walsh, and his prowess in the boxing ring. During WWII, Joe gave up the ring to fight for Uncle Sam. The strip began in 1928 and continued well beyond Fisher's death in 1955.
World War II affected all aspects of our lives. I was anxious to show my patriotism by participating in a program involving the war effort. Being teary-eyed whenever the flag was shown on a movie screen really didn't help the cause. I became a hostess at a canteen for wounded servicemen. The Lido Beach Club, on Long Island, turned over its facilities to these men for an entire day in July. The hostesses were bussed in from Queens. I climbed aboard, and was delighted with perfect weather. At the age of seventeen and one-half, I still greeted each day with a sense of adventure. That July day held promises of loafing on the beach, swimming in the surf, mingling with the men and dancing to a swing band.
The afternoon passed quickly. At times, sharp comments passed between the sailors and soldiers. The sunset exploded across the sky with breathtaking beauty. We went inside to change our clothes in the pink locker room. The club had an affluent clientele; therefore, the lobby and dining room had many elegant touches. We were treated to a gourmet dinner but at that time, I preferred hamburgers oozing with ketchup. The dancing began, and our emcee made a surprise announcement: a well-known singer, Spanish dancers, a comedian and a guest artist were coming to entertain us. The tables were pushed back for the program. We knew all the lyrics to the songs. The dancers were exciting, and the comedian kept us laughing even though he told us war jokes.
Ham Fisher—the well-known cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Joe Palooka—appeared. A waiter brought out an easel and a box of pastels. Ham drew a few cartoons on a large pad, and we were fascinated by his facile skill. He announced his intention of sketching one of the hostesses. The artist walked around the room slowly, seeking a model. My knees began to shake as I had a strong feeling who would be asked to pose. Ham grabbed my hand and pulled me to the center of the dance floor. I had to face the group while he sketched me. I could not see the easel, and I was told not to turn around. There was a buzz going through the audience, and loud cat-calls and whistles were directed at me. I even heard a few hubba-hubbas. At that point, I knew something fishy was going on.
While drawing, Ham continually commented with a humorous patter. Finally, he told me to look around. I turned red with embarrassment when I glanced at the drawing of a nude girl, with red hair. I was totally humiliated! When Ham hugged me, I buried my face in his shoulder so I didn't have to look at the audience. Just like the winning contestant in quiz shows, I exaggerated my feelings, getting a greater reaction from the audience. Scrawled across the top of the paper was a brief message as well as the words, To Muriel, from Ham. Arguments broke out between the servicemen, as they each tried to claim the picture. Ham explained to the crowd that the pictured belonged to Muriel. After spraying the sketch with a fixative, he placed it in a cardboard roll.
Ham casually handed me his business card, and said he would like to use me as a model. He also said that he would like to introduce me to his mother. His parting words were, Please call. I told my mother that this artist would like me to model for him. My mother's response resounded like a clap of thunder, “NO!”, and with a sneer, she added, “I know what he's after!”
Mom never saw the sketch, and keeping it hidden turned out to be quite difficult. After we were married, I showed the drawing to my husband. He found it very amusing. At some point, we either gave the sketch away or lost it in one of the moves.